Growing bitter melons vertically on a trellis
Bitter melons grow on long vines and take up a lot of space in the garden, so if you have a small garden you could try growing bitter melons vertically.
Bitter melon vines can be trained to climb up a trellis, arbor, pergola or fence so they’re ideal for vertical gardens.
In this article I’ll share my tips for growing bitter melons vertically and tell you about some interesting varieties of bitter melons to plant in your garden.
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Bitter melons (Momordica charantia) are part of the cucurbitaceae family which also includes pumpkins, cucumbers, squash and watermelons.
They’re best suited to humid subtropical areas and need three to four months of warm weather with temperatures between 75 and 80°F (23 and 26 °C) to grow and mature.
There are two main types of bitter melon that you can grow in your garden:
Chinese bitter melons grow 8 to 12 inches (20 to 30 cm) in length. The melons have light green skin with smooth bumps and the ends are rounded.
Some popular chinese varieties include Money Maker, Hong Kong Green and China Pearl.
Indian bitter melons are smaller in size than the Chinese variety, growing 4 to 10 inches (10 to 25 cm) long with pointy bumps and pointed ends.
Look for India Long Green, India Green Queen and India Pearl.
Support structures for bitter melons
Bitter melon vines can grow 13 to 16 feet (4 to 4.8 metres) long so they need sturdy, tall vertical structures that can support their weight, especially if you’re growing a few plants on the one trellis.
Arbors and pergolas are perfect for growing bitter melons vertically and they look nice with the fruits hanging down as they ripen.
If you have a tall wire fence, you can train the vines to grow up the fence to give you some extra vertical space in the garden.
You can also bend mesh or bamboo into an arch shape to create a tunnel for your bitter melons to grow over.
Advantages of growing bitter melons vertically
As well as saving space in the vegetable garden, it’s easier to keep bitter melon plants healthy when they’re grown off the ground.
Trellising bitter melons allows air to circulate around the vines, which reduces the likelihood of fungal diseases and the plants are less likely to be affected by pests when they’re grown on a trellis.
Bitter melons that are grown vertically are straighter and they’re a lot easier to harvest because you can see the fruits hanging down.
How to grow bitter melons vertically
In tropical and subtropical areas, bitter melons can be planted year-round as long as the plants are watered regularly when there isn’t much rainfall.
Outside the tropics, bitter melons can be planted in the garden in late spring after the last frost of the season.
You can also start bitter melon seeds indoors in early spring and transplant them out to the garden when the weather warms up and the risk of frost has passed.
Choose a spot in the garden that receives at least six hours of sunlight each day and dig some soil improver or aged compost into the soil before planting.
Plant the bitter melon seeds about half an inch (1.25 cm) deep close to the vertical structure you’ve chosen to support the plants.
Space the seeds at least 3 feet (90 cm) apart to give the plants room to spread out as they grow.
If you have a small trellis or arch, you’ll probably only need one plant because the vines can grow 16 feet (4.8 metres) or more, depending on the variety.
You can also plant bitter melon seeds in a large container and place it next to a trellis or wire fence so the plant has something to climb up.
The seeds should start to sprout in 8 to 10 days but it could take a bit longer if the soil is cold.
Bitter melon vines use their tendrils to wrap around trellises and other vertical structures to help them climb.
As the plants begin to grow, you can give them a hand to grow upwards by gently wrapping the tendrils around the trellis.
If the plants start to outgrow the height of the trellis you can trim off the ends of the vines to fit the space.
Harvesting bitter melons
Bitter melons are usually ready to harvest about 50 to 70 days after planting so you won’t have to wait long to harvest your crop.
The longer the bitter melons stay on the vine the more bitter tasting they’ll be so it’s best to pick them early.
Each vine will produce about 10 to 12 fruits and it’s a good idea to check the vines every day or two because the fruits mature quickly.
Saving bitter melon seeds
If you’d like to save some seeds to plant the next season, leave a few fruits on each vine when you’re finished harvesting.
The fruits will break open and release the seeds which you can collect and dry.
Store the dried seeds in a paper bag to plant the following year.
How to eat bitter melons
Although bitter melons are classified as fruits, they’re most commonly eaten as a vegetable in cooked dishes.
Peeling bitter melons is optional and you can leave the seeds in or remove them before cooking.
Some of the most common ways to cook bitter melon include boiling, steaming, frying, pickling and stir frying.
To reduce the bitterness you can soak the sliced bitter melon in water for 30 minutes before cooking.
Storing bitter melons
Bitter melons don’t store well so it’s best to cook them within a few days of harvesting.
Store them in a paper bag in the vegetable compartment of your refrigerator for up to 5 days.
Bitter melons are also known by many other names including:
- Bitter gourd
- Bitter cucumber
- Balsam apple
- Bitter squash
- Balsam pear 
So there are my tips for growing bitter melons on a trellis, pergola or arbor.
Trellising bitter melons is a great way to maximize your garden space so you can grow bitter melons even if you have limited space in your garden.